In the antechamber of hope: Higher and distance education and (un)employment (#CFHE12)

There are different reasons why people hope. Many people believe that there is a reason why things happen, or that things will work out fine. This group most probably overlaps with another group who believes that the future will be better. Then there is the group that I call those in the antechamber of hope – those who don’t have any evidence for hoping that whatever they do now will definitely improve their chances on a better and more fulfilled life. Thy are the ones who act on the opportunities they have now, often with the determination of a falling star, because not acting opens the door to the dark room of despair, fear and resignation. Reflecting on the changing relationship between having a degree and employment, many of our graduates find themselves, seemingly permanently, in the antechamber of hope.

A report prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education (written by Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley) also  sound the alarm. The report indicates that it is clear that some dramatic changes were in the offing for higher education with forces outside of the loci of control of higher education dramatically altering age-old assumptions and relations. One of these assumptions is the link between a degree and (immediate) employment. The report eerily states that “No one knows how deep the crisis will become or how long it will last” (p. xvii) and warns that higher education is “entering a period of crisis, unprecedented since World War II, and the full impact is as yet unclear” (p. xvii). Three years after the report since 2009, the sense of crisis and uncertainty is deepening – for higher and distance education institutions and students alike.

Not only is unemployment increasing in many parts of the world, what is particularly worrying is the rising unemployment amongst the youth, many of whom are graduates. For years we promised students that a degree is their passport to a better life. We never told them about the visa requirements of the need for a growing economy, the embedded power-relations in getting employment impacted on by race, gender, religion and culture. We left and leave them in a somewhat darker antechamber of a hope and try to forget their faces, their lives, their aspirations and stories.

Bauman (2012, p.46) states that present-day graduates is the first post-war generation to face the prospect of “downward mobility.” He points to the notion that our children will be better off, have more opportunities than their parents had, be richer and more secure, simply is not true anymore. Nothing and nobody are preparing our graduates for the reality of arriving in a “hard, uninviting and inhospitable world of the downgrading of grades, the devaluation of earned merits, locked doors, the volatility of jobs and the stubbornness of joblessness, the transience of prospects and the durability of defeats; of a new world of stillborn projects and frustrated hopes and of chances ever more conspicuous by their absence” (Bauman, 2012, p.47).

It is, according to Bauman (2012) the first time in living memory that “the whole class of graduates face a high probability , almost the certainty, of ad hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time jobs, unpaid ‘trainee’ pseudo-jobs deceitfully rebranded as ‘practices’” and being permanently added to lists of names of “job-centre waiting lists” (p.47).

Which brings me to John (not his real name). I met him in 2010 while walking my two dogs in a park close to where I stay. From our engagement at that stage I found out that he is Zimbabwean, employed as a security guard, who permanently works night shift and stays (and sleeps) in the park during day time. I discovered that he is also studying a Bachelor of Accounting Science at the University of South Africa (Unisa) with an explicit dream to become a chartered accountant.

And so our journey started. I was witness to his fears when xenophobic attacks disrupted the lives of many of our foreign students in 2010. I witnessed his trouble in finding and affording prescribed textbooks, his amazing and relentless belief that a bachelor degree in accounting science will change his life.  When one of his modules required him to work online getting accustomed to Pastel, we could not find him a second-hand computer and at the end we secured him access to a computer close to the park where he slept and studied during the day.

As I got to know him, his story unfolded. He was already in his early twenties when he completed his secondary school levels in Zimbabwe and crawled through the fence on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa in 1995 after his mother died. He found employment on a farm in the Limpopo province of South Africa (bordering on Zimbabwe) and was a farm labourer for a number of months, earning 100 ZAR per month (approximately 11 USD). After a year he relocated to Gauteng (central South Africa, close to Johannesburg) and found a job on a plot where he herded cattle and looked after some sheep. His employer enrolled him at a college for a certificate programme in catering and tourism, which he completed with flying colours. He was a waiter for a while but his employer motivated him to study accounting through Unisa. He completed his training as security guard, relocated to Pretoria and since 2007 he is employed as a security guard.  In June 2008 he enrolled at Unisa with money from his savings’ account and passed his first level courses with an average of 82%. Since then he studied with a blend of student loans, his own savings and support from a sponsor.

He graduated last week four years after he registered for the first time. He is still a security guard.

He has put in hundreds of applications but no offer of employment is forthcoming. Though he has acquired South African citizenship, within the context of South African Employment Equity legislation, he is regarded as a foreign national. As a foreign national his chances of finding employment at an accountancy or auditing firm seem dim. He plans to register for his postgraduate diploma in chartered accountancy in 2013. He has not given up hope. He cannot afford (in more than one sense) to give up hope. He, like many others, seem to be in the antechamber of hope, where losing hope is not an option.

In conclusion: It is relatively easy to theorize about xMOOCs and cMOOCs, about Udemity, and Udacity, EdX and Khan Academy – and forget to consider under what circumstances these changes in the higher and distance education landscape will affect, and change for the better, those who are, seemingly permanently, in the antechamber of hope. Those graduates in the antechamber of hope don’t have any evidence for hoping that whatever they do now will definitely improve their chances on a better and more fulfilled life. They have no choice but to act on the opportunities they now have, often with the determination of a falling star, because not acting opens the door to the dark room of despair, fear and resignation.

As educators we do not have many other choices than that…


Altbach, P.G., Reisberg, L., Rumbley, L.E. (2009). Trends in global higher education: tracking an academic revolution. A report provided for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education. Retrieved from

Bauman, Z. (2012). On education.  Cambridge, UK: Polity.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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4 Responses to In the antechamber of hope: Higher and distance education and (un)employment (#CFHE12)

  1. Shana says:

    This sadly is too true. I see the same happening here in the US. When people such, including Obama, say “get a college education” many believe this and go into debt for college degrees with majors that will never give them a chance to get a job that will allow to repay their immense student loans, many of which cannot ever be erased even through bankruptcy.

  2. Jason Green says:

    The question which sticks in my mind when I read “John’s” story is, “What if this isn’t a small cycle, but is instead one where ICT has gotten so efficient that it reduces, on a global scale, the number of workers the economy needs to function?” The rise of cloud computing raises the possibility that the world won’t need nearly as many IT people to run all the computers that are replacing thousands of accountants, clerks, and perhaps teachers, as we though it would, especially as the number of university graduates from outside the western world grows.

    • Jason, apologies for taking some time to respond – I was overseas for some weeks and am only catching up now.

      Your response really sent shivers down my spine. You are absolutely right. This will furthermore not be the first time in history that technological advances changes job descriptions or making some occupations obsolete. I think the real question your response raises is whether higher education is ready to educate a new generation of people with skills, knowledge and values for jobs that don’t exist yet?

      Thanks for engaging with my post! Paul

  3. Pingback: Modernity and its outcasts – the role of higher education | opendistanceteachingandlearning

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